It is impossible to determine with any certainty who coined the term “scientific romance” or when it was first used in print. The earliest use of the phrase that it was possible to find in December 2012 by searching for it among the digital documents indexed by the Hathi Trust and Google Books is in a footnote to a dissertation on Saxon law by the barrister James Ibbetson, first published in 1780. In that essay, Ibbetson refers scathingly to a suggestion that a medieval Saxon legal custom might have originated in Troy, and the corollary account of its importation to Britain, as “the dreams of prejudice and scientific romance” (36).
The idea that refugees from Troy, led by one Brutus, credited by legend as Britain’s first lawgiver, had once settled in Britain was already ancient in 1780. It had been credited by scholars to Celtic legends allegedly preserved in Welsh chronicles and had become sufficiently familiar for many English writers, including Edmund Spenser and John Milton, to allude to it, but it is certainly fanciful. Indeed, the entire legendary “history” of Britain prior to the reign of King Alfred is a vast tissue of fantasies, much of it invented by the Normans in the wake of the eleventh century “conquest” in the spirit of “romance,” and it was subsequently subjected to a continual process of remolding as litterateurs and scholars attempted to reconcile Norman fancy with previous Saxon and Celtic fancy.
In all probability, James Ibbetson, as a man of law, meant to imply little more by his scathing dismissal of the Trojan origins of British law than the mere fact that it was nonsense—but given that, the fact that he chose not merely the term “romance,” but the term “scientific romance,” is revealing. If we are to understand why that particular portmanteau term came into existence in the latter half of the eighteenth century, it might be helpful to examine briefly the contemporary implications of both of its components more closely.
The English word “romance” comes from a group of French words, including both roman and romance, derived from the Old French romanz, whose approximate meaning was “vernacular” and which was usually used to refer to documents translated from Latin. “Romance” was imported to the English language by the Normans after the conquest, but its French equivalents were in the midst of a striking evolution by then. They were used in a general sense with reference to “romance languages” descended from Latin. But in the eleventh century, they were more frequently and more particularly used with reference to a genre of poetry and prose fiction that had begun with translations of Latin epic poetry but had soon given birth to prolific original composition. Just as the translations had referred to what was by then a distant mythologized past, the imitations and pastiches also looked back nostalgically to a whole series of mythologized distant pasts.
By the middle of the twelfth century—the heyday of the conquering Normans, who had originated as invaders from Scandinavia—such works had become enormously popular. They had become a kind of ideological enshrinement of the feudal political system, glorifying the contemporary hierarchy of kings, barons, and knights by extending it backwards into imaginary pasts and crediting it with imaginary virtues. In the late Middle Ages, the rulers of both France and England had long been descended from northern invaders—the Franks and the Saxons—who had partly displaced and partly absorbed previous cultures, loosely describable as Gauls and Celts. Both had been previously conquered by the Romans, so the mythological pasts cooked up in France and England in the twelfth century were blessed with a rich complexity and confusion of inherited and improvised materials.
Literary “Romance” was, in consequence, an inherently syncretic genre, tacitly celebrating the kind of unification obtained by conquest and reorganization that was characteristic of the actual history of feudalism as well as the flattering ideological image that romancers tried to construct. Although the “chivalric romance” glorifying knightly prowess in combat was at its heart, it also embraced “courtly romance,” which offered an idealized depiction of intimate relationships, and it was enthusiastic to embrace all kinds of local superstitions and gather them into a generalized melting-pot—always, of course, with the proviso that any threats originating from such dubious folk apparatus could not withstand the ideological forces of Christian faith and knightly heroism.
In France, where political domination was shared by two sets of northern invaders whose mastery was by no means total or wholly secure, the key imagery of chivalric and courtly romance was nostalgically attached to and partly derived from cultures with a longer local history. The courtly apparatus was associated with the southern region of Provence, whose Roman roots had been conflated with Arabic influences imported via Moorish Spain, and the chivalric apparatus had a particular link with the western region of Brittany, the population of which had strong ethnic links with those of Cornwall and Wales. When the Normans imported Romance into England, therefore, it was only natural that the romances relating to the island should concoct an imaginary history that was distinctly affiliated to the Breton chivalric strand of French romance with a relatively light seasoning of courtly romance. The imaginary history in question focused primarily on legends of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and the wizard Merlin, to which was added—by courtesy of an unfinished allegory penned by Chrétien de Troyes—the striking original element of the quest for the Holy Grail. The tale of Brutus and his earlier refugees from Troy became a minor element in that vast tissue of invention.
The entire substance of medieval romance is deliberately fanciful. It is an extravagant, fantastic, magnificent, and beautiful tissue of blatant lies. Like all fiction, however, it relied to some extent for its rhetorical effect on the assertion of its truth, and the more blatant its lies were, the harder it had to emphasize its pretense: a necessary paradox. It would probably be unsafe to say that composers of romances were never fooled by their own inventions because charlatans are notoriously liable to fall prey to their own patter, but in the main, the inventors of romances cannot have been unaware that they were weaving pure fantasies, even though they were obliged to assert the opposite in order to pay due court to their readers’ “willing suspension of disbelief.”
The vast majority of hearers and readers of medieval romances cannot have been fooled by that imposture any more than modern children can really believe in Santa Claus, but in the same spirit of preserving rhetorical effect, they might well have pretended to believe, at least temporarily. Subsequent scholars, however, were sometimes much less certain of the total falsehood of romance, having an innate tendency of their own to suspect and to judge that, even if it were not literally or entirely true, something in writing must surely have a seed of reliability within it. Indeed, one of the primary activities of scholarship throughout the ages, if not the primary activity, has been the sustained and determined endeavor to prove the false true, especially if it has been written down.
Paradoxical as it may seem, that tendency coexists with a strong desire on the part of scholars to pose as hard-headed skeptics, partly out of sincerity but partly because of the necessity to establish and conserve their own rhetorical effect. Scholars are inherently far more likely to fall prey to their own patter than inventors of romance; indeed, it is a rare scholar who does not. There is no fantasy that tries harder to pretend to be fact than scholarly fantasy.
There is too much that is obviously fantastic in the substance of medieval romance for it ever to have been taken at face value by scholars, but that never prevented scholars from looking for “the truth behind the fiction.” In the British context, that has included searching for the “real” King Arthur and the “real” Merlin behind the myths—or, at least, for “authentic” Celtic myths and legends underlying the supposedly bastardized Norman inventions.
Such are the fashions of scholarship that quests for those particular unholy grails were largely conducted in terms of arguments from authority for centuries after the initial documentation had taken place. As the perceived weight of arguments from authority began to decline by comparison with the perceived force of arguments based on objective evidence—scientific arguments—thus bringing about “the Age of Reason” and “the Enlightenment,” the manner in which scholars interested in romance conducted their research, interpreted their findings, and reported their conclusions inevitably shifted.
Some scholars of the Enlightenment took up the position that, because there was not an atom of worthwhile objective evidence, the rational conclusion was that the substance of romance was unworthy of scholarly attention. But some did not, preferring to recruit scientific—or, at least, seemingly scientific—methods and theories to the analysis of their data, in the hope of teasing out whatever precious grains of insight were lurking within it, whether ethnographic, psychological, or linguistic in character.
The latter tendency became intricately involved with a spectacular resurgence in the latter part of the eighteenth century of a new kind of self-declared and unrepentant Romanticism, which deliberately took up an ideological position opposed to “Classicism” in art and scholarship alike. It was doubtless the awareness of the existence and ambition of that movement that prompted James Ibbetson to refer in his footnote to scholarship willing to entertain the thesis that British law had Trojan foundations not simply as “romance” but as “scientific romance.” Had he had the concept of “pseudoscience” available in his vocabulary, he might have used that instead, but in 1780, science was not sufficiently advanced for its practitioners to be able to detach its reality from its appearance in any convincing manner. At any rate, Ibbetson was not simply dismissing the idea of Brutus the Trojan lawgiver as a fantasy but as a scholarly fantasy—which he doubtless considered, as a hard-headed lawyer, to be a uniquely silly kind of fantasy.
Just as the meaning of the word “romance” had, the meaning of the word “science” had shifted over time. The concept moved from being generally synonymous with “knowledge” to being associated with a particular theory of knowledge: the notion that only convictions based on rigorous empirical observation and tested, if possible, by experimental proof could qualify as reliable knowledge rather than mere opinion.
It may be worth noting here that one important new concept that was coming into prominence at the end of the eighteenth century was that of the “scientist.” The word was not formally coined until the 1830s by William Whewell while he was laying the groundwork for his History of the Inductive Sciences (1837), but Whewell was right to observe that it was a term whose time had come. There was already an abundance of people to whom it could and ought to be fitted: people who were making a profession, a career, and a vocation out of the pursuit of new truths by means of the scientific method of enquiry. Key exemplars of that phenomenon were provided in Britain by the members of Erasmus Darwin’s Lunar Society—including Joseph Priestley, James Watt, Josiah Wedgwood, and Matthew Boulton—who were heavily committed to both the vocational practice of science and to its popularization via education.
Although it might seem that there was a fundamental opposition between the interests of that profession on the one hand and the resurgence of a new Romantic movement in literature and art on the other, sufficient to make the concept of “scientific romance” intrinsically oxymoronic, the matter was not so simple. In the same way that literature and art seemed to some observers to have become hidebound and stultified by the presumptions of “Classicism,” so it seemed that philosophy in general and “natural philosophy” in particular were also being held back in their progress by ancient arguments whose weight—ultimately based on Classical authority—no longer ought to be credited. There was a revolutionary spirit extending across all the fields of human endeavor, crying out for a sweeping transformation of the so-called Age of Enlightenment and establishing a kinship between all intellectual sorts of rebels against perceived tradition, reflected not merely in communication and friendship but in a certain overlap of endeavor.
Beginning in Germany and spreading to France and thus being considered doubly foreign by its opponents when it began to become manifest in England, the “Romantic Movement” produced philosophers interested in art and artists interested in philosophy, encouraging philosophers to use literary methods of analysis and artists to adopt and explore philosophical themes. While artists became interested in the brutal and the reckless—“the sublime” as well as or even rather than “the beautiful”—and hence in the archaic and the supernatural, scholars affiliated to the cause began to take a renewed interest in folklore in terms of its connections with linguistics and national consciousness. That helped to make the artists more attentive to the philosophical connotations of their materials and encouraged scholars to dabble in the production of Romantic fiction.
Because of this tendency, a number of writers did indeed begin to produce works—sometimes influential and popular works—that might warrant retrospective description and consideration as “scientific romances,” many of which rejoiced in their own seemingly chimerical character. Erasmus Darwin produced two key examples in The Botanic Garden (1791) and The Temple of Nature (1803). Such works began to appear with increasing frequency in the eighteenth century in Germany and France and began to appear in Britain in modest profusion in the early nineteenth century.
The phrase “scientific romance” crops up infrequently but repeatedly in documents indexed by the Hathi Trust and Google Books published throughout the first six decades of the nineteenth century, used in the same way that Ibbetson had used it—which is to say, deploring any tendency of scientists to make fanciful claims and any tendency on the part of people making fanciful claims to sanctify them as “scientific.” The phrase seems to have been particularly common, as might be expected, in works dealing with the perceived ideological conflict between science and religion, religion’s defenders routinely wanting to write off scientific ideas that challenged dogmatic belief as illegitimate “romances.”
There are, however, two significant British literary works published early in the century that employ the term in their supplementary material in a revealing manner, given their fictional contents, and which therefore warrant more detailed consideration: the satirical novel Flim-Flams! Or the Life and Errors of My Uncle and the Amours of my Aunt, first published in 1805 under the by-line “Messieurs Tag, Rag and Bobtail,” written by Isaac D’Israeli, and a story series by the Irish Catholic writer Gerald Griffin published in volumes with various different titles, including The Christian Physiologist (1830) and The Offering of Friendship (1854).
Although Isaac D’Israeli was widely read in philosophy, including natural philosophy, it was literature that was his primary interest, and the developments of modern science lay somewhat beyond his expertise. Although that did not stop him from poking fun at science, he does appear to have been a trifle tentative in his approach and a trifle embarrassed by his achievement. When Benjamin Disraeli wrote a memoir of his father’s life for inclusion in later editions of The Curiosities of Literature, he does not even mention his father’s satirical novel, which was not only issued under a preposterous pseudonym but was revised in between its two editions of 1805 and 1806, the second being retitled Flim-Flams! or the Life and Errors of My Uncle and His Friends.
The phrase “scientific romance” crops up in the elaborate introductory material to the text when the author introduces the protagonist, sarcastically, as “the Sir Charles Grandison, or the Amadis de Gaul of the world of scientific romance” (D’Israeli vol. 1, 2). Sir Charles Grandison is the eponymous hero of Samuel Richardson’s 1753 response to Henry Fielding’s parodies of his previous novels, and was designed as a paragon of virtue, although D’Israeli, who appreciated Fielding far more than Richardson did, probably thought him sufficiently absurd as to need no further parody. Amadis de Gaul is the hero of the archetype of the sixteenth-century Iberian romances that took over and revitalized the defunct tradition of French romance and which enjoyed a tremendous vogue before being outclassed and outshone, in the eyes of subsequent commentators by Miguel de Cervantes’s devastating parody of their conventions and artifices, Don Quixote (1607). Amadis of Gaul had been translated into English in 1803 by Robert Southey; D’Israeli presumably thought that it had arrived in nineteenth-century England also without any need of further parody, given that Don Quixote was already well-known there.
D’Israeli uses the phrase “scientific romance” in much the same way as James Ibbetson, and the purpose of the text’s account of the fictitious uncle’s eccentricities is to poke fun at many ideas that D’Israeli had found in contemporary scientific texts in the course of his reading. The uncle is a chemist whose reputation is said to rest on his enormous patience in repeating experiments hundreds of times and always getting the same result. He is said to have “a particular genius [for the] anti-sublime in science,” that being “the science of turning the big into the little” (vol. 1, 74).
In the course of the narrative, which mostly deals with the uncle’s relationships with other members of a scientific club known as the Constellation or the Pleiades—reflective of the Lunar Society—scathing accounts are offered of craniognomy (what later became known as phrenology), the meteorology of Luke Howard, geological accounts of the shaping of the Earth by volcanic or hydrologic action, recent conflicting accounts of the properties of nitrous oxide—“philosophical brandy”—and so on, in company with abusive dismissals of theorists in general as builders of “magicians’ bridges” that only they can cross. Mockery is also directed at female scientists in the account of the protagonist’s wooing of and marriage to a female astronomer who subsequently cuckolds him. The most elaborate and extensive satirical assault is, however, on proto-evolutionism, in the course of which the novel’s footnotes—which are even more elaborate than those attached to the poem in Darwin’s The Temple of Nature—cite Benoît de Maillet, Lord Monboddo, and Delisle de Sales, as well as Darwin himself.
In the course of the serial demolition carried out by Flim-Flams!, D’Israeli offers a much fuller account of the range of varieties of “scientific romance” than can be found elsewhere in the period, but there was probably no one else in England during the period who read as voluminously and as omnivorously as D’Israeli, at least with such a caustic eye. Because he is attempting to emphasize the absurdities of “scientific romance,” D’Israeli is reluctant to indulge in it himself, but he simply cannot resist the temptation to indulge in a little philosophical speculation of his own. In comparison with the substance of generic scientific romance, the most interesting passage in the story is one in which the uncle actually encounters a homunculus: a “miserable fruit of experimental philosophy” (vol. 3, 11) grown artificially from a microscopic seed, who has recapitulated in his development the kind of evolutionary sequence described by Darwin in the embryological development and subsequent growth of a single individual. The homunculus constitutes an anticipatory literalization of what subsequently came to be known as Haeckel’s Law: “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.” Alas, the finished homunculus is a dwarf, stigmatized by a tail, like the primitive humans envisaged by Lord Monboddo. Partly in consequence, he enjoys no Darwinian “happiness of life” but is a wretched individual regretful of his own perverse existence.
The elaborate introductory material to Flim-Flams! begins with a series of fictitious “anticipatory reviews,” including one from the Anti-Jacobin, a Tory periodical set up by George Canning and others to fight back against the satirical radical press which attacked both “Jacobin poetry” (especially Southey and Coleridge) and “Jacobin science” (especially Erasmus Darwin and Joseph Priestley). The “review” in question does not express any hostility to the book’s assaults on science but does dismiss the entire exercise as trivial and protests its deceptiveness, evidently but absurdly failing to appreciate its sarcasm—and, indeed, D’Israeli had no real reason to think that the editors of the Anti-Jacobin would approve of him. They had no way to know, of course, that he was the father of a future Tory prime minister, but even if they had been able to know that, it is by no means obvious that Canning would have approved of Benjamin Disraeli in that capacity, all the more so because the younger Disraeli became a novelist and satirist himself, by no means reluctant to use Romantic methods and themes.
Isaac D’Israeli would surely have been regarded from the Anti-Jacobin viewpoint as warranting a certain amount of guilt by association with the Romantic movement despite having no hint of the “Jacobin” about his politics. He was personally acquainted with several Romantic poets and at least one of Britain’s “Jacobin scientists” (Humphry Davy). One of the longer journalistic essays collected in Curiosities of Literature praises “Romances” as a form of artistic endeavor and contrasts modern exemplars with “Novels” in a fashion that is not entirely to the advantage of the latter.
D’Israeli had practiced what he preached in this regard, publishing a collection of his own Romances (1799), which was perhaps enough in itself to identify him as a significant contributor to the British Romantic movement. It would have been surprising, therefore, if he had not had a little sympathy for “scientific romance,” and Flim-Flams! is, in fact, a very mild satire which often betrays an obvious fascination with the ideas that the author cannot quite bring himself to take seriously—and which Tag, Rag, and Bobtail do, after all, attribute to an uncle for whom they clearly have a family affection in spite of his eccentricities.
That kind of wry sympathy was not a problem for the author of the other early literary work indexed by the Hathi Trust that embraced the term “scientific romance”: the Irish Catholic writer Gerald Griffin. Griffin’s dogmatically based opposition to “scientific romance” was far more earnest. His “Tales Illustrative of the Five Senses,” first appeared in the Christian Apologist in 1830. The series was evidently conceived as an ideological reply to attempts by proto-psychologists to co-opt the human soul into a mere mechanical adjunct of the senses. Although Griffin makes no specific reference to Erasmus Darwin’s Zoonomia (1794) or The Temple of Nature, the theses set out in those two books are, at the very least, significant specimens of the position that Griffin attacks; his method is only dissimilar in that he uses prose fiction in preference to poetry to illustrate his own ideas, and places his nonfictional commentaries before the stories rather than alongside or after them.
Griffin’s specific use of the term “scientific romance” is to declare, pompously, and rather optimistically, that “the day of scientific romance is past” (149). However, as with “The Loves of the Triangles” (the Anti-Jacobin’s famous parody of Erasmus Darwin’s “The Loves of the Plants”) and D’Israeli’s satire, the narrative method of Griffin’s opposition becomes itself a wry foreshadowing of what would later become the literary genre of “scientific romance.”
The first section of the text begins with an account of the anatomy of the eye and the physiology of sight as known at the time and then proceeds to an account of “the uses and government of sight” crediting it as the principal agent of the imagination. Griffin compliments the sense of sight on permitting literature and then invites the reader who wants to “appreciate the excellence of this wonderful organ” simply to look up at the night sky and remember the true size, distance and number of the stars, concluding that it is hardly possible after having done so to imagine an impious astronomer or anatomist. The story illustrating the sense in question is “The Kelp-Gatherer,” a brief, sentimental account of the restoration of a blind mother’s sight by surgery on her cataracts.
In the same way, the second story features the restoration of a young deaf-mute’s hearing and voice. The third part features “the sense of feeling” and the illustrative story, “The Voluptuary Cured” maintains the pattern of sensation lost and found. The author has little to say about the physiology of smell, and “The Self-Consumed” is a very peculiar illustration thereof, being a strange tale whose protagonist encounters a victim of “lycanthropia”—the insanity of believing oneself to be a werewolf—apparently induced by having witnessed a case of spontaneous human combustion in stressful circumstances. The latter phenomenon is explained hypothetically in a footnote by the highly implausible suggestion that it might result from bathing with the aid of ill-chosen cosmetics. Consideration of the sense of taste inevitably brings the censorious Griffin back to consideration of the vices of “voluptuaries,” but “The Selfish Crotarie” (a crotarie is a harper) is a historical tale of the ancient Irish fighting against Danish colonists, the relevance of which is distinctly dubious.
The frame-text goes on, however, to discuss the intellect—consciousness and its attributes—in order to conclude that truth must ultimately be obtained by something beyond the scope of the five senses combined with the application of reason. The narrative voice complains about those who claim otherwise, naming no scientists but only “infidel poets” whom he affects to pity: Shelley and Byron. In this section too there is an exemplary tale, and the author abandons naturalism altogether to turn to fantastic allegory in a manner reminiscent of Erasmus Darwin, although inclining toward a very different moral.
In “A Story of Psyche,” the titular character is banished from Eden for having committed a crucial sin, but compensation for her fallen plight is offered by her two children, Judgment and Imagination—a boy and girl respectively, the latter being, in her turn, the parent of Science. Guided by Imagination, Science, and the Senses, Psyche is led on a quest for happiness through the gate of knowledge in spite of the advice of Judgment to cultivate virtue instead, but she occasions evil wherever she goes. When Imagination finally deserts her, she seeks out Judgment again, only to find him metamorphosed into Philosophy, quoting Socrates, Newton, and Democritus. All is not lost, however, and she is eventually guided back to the true path of progress by ardent prayer.
For Griffin’s Psyche as for D’Israeli’s homunculus, there is no innate “happiness of life” but only the misery of the fallen state, from which the only possible escape is piety—a piety that only holds out the remote promise of reward, a heaven undescribed by its virtue of being unimaginable. It is not obvious why Griffin or his devout readers—the book must have been popular to have gone through so many editions although it is forgotten today—felt that this was a preferable outlook to the one embraced by The Temple of Nature. But they were not lacking in support in the next century and a half when there was to be no shortage of people who wished sincerely, if somewhat hopelessly, that the age of “scientific romance” would very soon be past. In Griffin’s own day, it had hardly begun.
The Ibbetson/D’Israeli/Griffin usage of “scientific romance” was also repeated, naturally enough, in 1845 by at least one reviewer of Robert Chambers’s evolutionist account of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, prompting the introducer of the second American edition, George B. Cheever, to observe that “This book has well been called a scientific romance” (vii). The apparent acceptance of the term encouraged some favorable reviewers to use it, too. When Archibald Tucker Ritchie’s The Dynamical Theory of the Earth was reviewed in Annals and Magazine of Natural History in 1851 the reviewer compared it to Chambers’s Vestiges, calling the latter a “delightful scientific romance.” In the same year, a reviewer in Macphail’s Edinburgh Ecclestiastical Journal and Literary Review described Robert Hunt’s Panthea as a scientific romance in a similarly complimentary manner. The geological account of the Earth’s past popularized by Chambers and rhapsodized by Hunt continued to attract the use of the phrase. In 1884, a reviewer in Popular Science Monthly applied it, as if it were the natural term to use, to Alexander Winchell’s pioneering endeavor in “astrogeology,” World-Life; or, Comparative Geology.
The abandonment of insulting implication by some of the mid-century users of the phrase presumably helped clear the way for the development of the somewhat different meaning that was later appropriated for reference to H. G. Wells. The French-derived usage that crops up in comments on translations of Jules Verne’s early works was also used in the frame narrative of Henry Holt’s 1867 translation of Edmond About’s L’Homme à l’oreille cassée (1862, published in the U.S.A. as The Man with the Broken Ear), in which it is a straightforward translation from the French roman scientifique. A reference in William Stanley Jevon’s Principles of Science (1874) to Bernard de Fontenelle’s Entretiens sur the pluralité des mondes as a scientific romance was probably inspired in the same way.
The use of the term in Moritz Kauffmann’s Utopias; or, Schemes of Social Improvement from Sir Thomas More to Karl Marx (1879) might be reckoned particularly significant in that it combines the idea of scientific romance with other notions that were to remain closely linked with it, with specific reference to Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis. Kauffmann states that New Atlantis
embodies Bacon’s visions of the future, and is remarkable not only as a philosophical speculation or scientific romance, but as being the outcome of sane reflection, containing but few, if any, of those chimerical extravagancies to be found in other Utopias. In the description of the conditions of mankind here, we have nothing but the practical results he anticipated from a practical and diligent study of nature according to his own principles. (18)
Although not intended as a definition of, or manifesto for, scientific romance, the remark highlights the more serious ambitions of that form of “philosophical speculation.”
The use of “scientific romance” as a descriptive term with no pejorative implication continued in the 1880s. In 1884, the publisher William Swann Sonnenschein issued a pamphlet entitled Scientific Romances No. I: What Is the Fourth Dimension? by C. H. Hinton and followed it up with four further pamphlets in the series, numbered II-V, which were then bound up into a book as Scientific Romances: First Series (1886). As promised, other pamphlets followed, but the series was interrupted after two more for reasons too complicated to go into here.
The Swann Sonnenschein series helped to make the phrase sufficiently familiar to invite pedantic modification on the part of hesitant users. A reviewer in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1885 referred to the Earl of Lytton’s Glenaveril; or, The Metamorphoses as “a scientific romance in verse.” In 1889, a review in the English Illustrated Magazine referred to “the quasi-scientific romance of Jules Verne and his imitators,” and the following year a reviewer in the Athaeneum referred to Robert Cromie’s A Plunge into Space as “a pseudo-scientific romance of the Jules Verne type.” The meaning of “scientific romance” that referred to works of fiction rather than conjectural essays in nonfiction seems to have become more frequent than its mildly insulting rival after 1870, but the other did not disappear entirely, and it continued to crop up in popular science magazines in the early twentieth century.
The quasi-oxymoronic ambiguity of the phrase, mischievously exploited by D’Israeli and still retained in the odd admixture of speculative essays in Hinton’s series, is a thoroughly Romantic phenomenon. The notion that scientific writing should not only stick to reportage but to dour reportage from which all metaphor, illustration, and decorative style has been ruthlessly eliminated along with more vulgar forms of inexactitude seemed innately conservative and “Classicist” by the end of the eighteenth century, even though it had no Classical ancestry and had good arguments to support it. The proposition that literary romance ought not to allow itself to be fettered by any allegiance with a discipline intrinsically opposed to enchantment and fancy has also had eloquent advocates, but that too seemed a trifle obsolete to eighteenth-century writers eager to introduce serious implications into their work and to employ fanciful apparatus for serious rhetorical purposes. There was, therefore, every reason why the dismissive use of the term “scientific romance” should at least be counterbalanced and perhaps displaced by a more generous implication.
Several notable British scientists of the nineteenth century had a definite poetic streak in their writing which often led them to rhapsodize about the wonderful implications of their discoveries. To some extent, this arose from a desire to dramatize their findings for the layman, communicating something of the excitement of scientific inquiry, but it was also intimately connected with the ongoing battle of ideas whereby men of science were trying to displace or modify the dogmas and prejudices of religion. In that contest, it was often considered strategic folly simply to argue flatly that certain beliefs encouraged by religion had been found to be false and that the actual truth of some such matters had now been ascertained. The war was not so much about individual items of belief but a struggle of world-views to which aesthetic and moral considerations were far from irrelevant, and many would-be champions of science who went in search of converts to their cause were very sensitive to the esthetic considerations of their work.
The impact of geology, cosmology, and evolutionary theory on traditional views of “man’s place in nature” and on moral and metaphysical philosophies relating to that question inevitably became one of the central themes of British scientific romance. In dealing with such notions, the best writers of scientific romance exhibited a philosophical ambition that was quite remarkable and noticeably different in its tone and implication from those of French and American writers of speculative fiction. Their greater reluctance to involve themselves in that particular war of ideas and their typical manner of handling it when they did inevitably reflected differences in the religious cultures of the three nations, and the different influences of religious culture on publishing policy. French Romanticism and American Romanticism each had their own distinct flavor—as, for that matter, did French anti-Romanticism and American anti-Romanticism—and those differences affected the way that science was viewed by scientists as well as laymen.
The most obvious difference of that kind is perhaps the heavy American emphasis on technology and the practical application of science at the expense of theory and philosophy as reflected in the glorification of Thomas Alva Edison as an archetype of pragmatic American genius. That emphasis not only affects the typical patterns of American science fiction but American attitudes to speculative fiction from Europe and hence attempts to locate writers like Verne and Wells within the generalized “history of science fiction.” Although Wells became a very popular writer and a key exemplar in France and America as well as in Britain, it does not follow that readers in those various countries were paying attention to the same aspects of the fiction, and it is undeniable that the patterns of his influence and that of generic scientific romance in France and America were different from one another and different from the pattern of their influence in Britain.
Brian Stableford lives in Reading, Kent.
- Cheever, Rev. George B. “Introduction” In Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation by Robert Chambers. Second US Edition. New York: Wiley & Putnam, 1845.
- D’Israeli, Isaac. Flim-Flams! Or, the Life and Errors of my Uncle, and the Amours of my Aunt . . . (as by Messieurs Tag, Rag, and Bobtail). In three volumes. London: John Murray, 1805–06.
- Griffin, Gerald. The Christian Physiologist: Tales Illustrative of the Five Senses. London: Edward Bull, 1830.
- Ibbetson, James. A Dissertation on the Judicial Customs of the Saxon and Norman Age. London: B. White, 1780.
- Kauffmann, Rev. M. Utopias; or, Schemes of Social Improvement from Sir Thomas More to Karl Marx. London: Kegan Paul, 1879.
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